Christmas music is everywhere at the moment, so I thought I would look at the history of it. In the British Library Music Catalogue, of the one million or so total publications, almost 10,000 – very nearly 1% – have the words ‘Christmas’, ‘Noel’ or ‘Weihnacht’ in the title. This chart shows the proportion by publication date…
Christmas music was rare before 1800 – there are just 48 such publications in the BL catalogue. After 1800, and especially after the Victorians reinvented Christmas towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the proportion grew, reaching 1% by 1900. By the end of the twentieth century, one in 50 sheet music publications was of Christmas music.
These 10,000 festive publications are by more than 4,000 different composers, two thirds of whom are represented by just a single work. The composer with the most Christmas publications in the BL catalogue is Adam Geibel (1855-1933), a German who emigrated to the US, with 62 publications of songs, anthems and other vocal works for Christmas.
The next five Christmas composers are also names that you have probably not come across (I certainly hadn’t) – Caleb Simper (41 publications), Clarence Dickinson, R M Stults, Eric Harding Thiman, and Cecilia Havergal (28). Among the better-known names, in seventh place is Georg Philipp Telemann, followed by Adolphe Adam (8th), Michael Praetorius (10th), Ralph Vaughan Williams (18th), and Arcangelo Corelli (22nd).
Among the top 30 Christmas composers, only one was first published after 1950 – the American Mary Elizabeth Caldwell (1909-2003). She is in ninth place with 23 publications. The majority of the most published Christmas composers date from the nineteenth century.
While it is hard to generalise, there seem to be some characteristics in common with the songs playing continuously in our shops, Christmas markets and public spaces at this time of year. With a few exceptions, the most popular Christmas songs are relatively old (many from the 1950s or earlier), and are not by the biggest names – indeed there are several examples of artists whose main claim to fame is a single Christmas hit.
Also, despite the huge amount of unknown and unplayed Christmas music, we only tend to hear the same handful of popular works. The works with the most publications in the BL catalogue (among those with identified composers) are Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’, and J S Bach’s ‘Christmas Oratorio’ (each with about 20 publications), followed by Adolphe Adam’s ‘Cantique de Noel’ – better known in English as ‘O Holy Night’.